Hercule Poirot. A name many of us know but we are perhaps uncertain of further detail. If he were to have a Tinder profile (unlikely, but it is the modern thumbnail) he might be ‘Belgian. 5´4, interested in fashion and style. Looking for either a man or a woman, it depends on the crime.’
But would China swipe right on Poirot?
Here’s why I ask. I was recently moderating a talk organised by the British Council at the Hong Kong Book Fair, with author Sophie Hannah. She’s written new Poirot books, supplying Agatha Christie’s famous character with fresh crimes to solve.
Preparing, I myself made a few discoveries. Poirot is the only fictional character to have had an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.
“Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown. At the end of his life, he was arthritic and had a bad heart. (He was) a well‐turned out, agile investigator who, with a charming but immense ego and fractured English, solved uncounted mysteries in the 37 full‐length novels and collections of short stories in which he appeared.”
There is no speculation about this death: it was carried out by the author, with a storyline, in the study. There was a love-hate relationship between Christie and her character as, by 1930, Agatha Christie found Poirot “insufferable”, and by 1960 – 15 years before she killed him off – she felt he was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. Little wonder she eventually snapped and pulled her pen on him.
Poirot hasn’t been brought back from the dead by Sophie Hannah. The new books, The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket, are previously undiscovered mid-career cases. But there are touches of modernity. I´m not giving anything away by saying that painter Nancy Ducane, or ´the waitress with the flyaway hair´, Fee Spring, are interesting female characters in The Monogram Murders. Poirot is in strong female company.
The talk was at the Hong Kong Book Fair, a million-ticket-selling event. It´s not the only evidence of thriving word power in Asia. The same week as the Book Fair, one of the mainland´s biggest companies, Tencent, announced its online literature section, China Reading, is in profit and set for an IPO. Chinese millennials love to read literature online.
This is where the potential of literary brands suggests itself. European fashion names sell big in China – Gucci, Versace etc. Poirot is basically the Chanel of detecting. Might he come here, for a novel set in China, aiming at a Chinese demographic? Maybe set in 1930s Shanghai? Would the Christie estate consider commissioning writers in another language? There are a few disappearances to solve here.
Or, for that Chinese millennial audience, there could be an offshoot – say, crimes solved by a detective grandson of Poirot, recently authenticated by DNA. Murder in a modern era. Instead of ´it was the heiress with a golf club in the parlour´, it was ´the entrepreneur with a selfie stick in the wet room´.
The TV series ‘Sherlock’ is a hit in China, and introduced people to the books. A new film version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ comes out in November, with Kenneth Branagh playing Poirot. Will this do well in China? Murder and an Orient success? Surely the time to capitalize.
Meantime, let’s conclude on a mystery. Kenneth Branagh’s controversial whiskers in the new film are best described as ‘imperial with a touch of handlebar’. In a glossary of moustaches, there is the ‘Tom Selleck’ and the ‘Dali’. Why no ‘Poirot’?